Pittsburgh region heroin outbreak reminds detective of China White

News of the current epidemic of fatal heroin overdoses couldn't help but transport retired Pittsburgh narcotics Detective Barry Fox back to 1988, when he and his partners, Claudia Salerno and Raoul Rapneth, helped break the notorious China White case.

"Immediately, I thought, 'This looks familiar.' It's the same thing," said Mr. Fox, who now owns the private detective agency Barry W. Fox & Associates. "In our case, we were extremely lucky things all came together pretty quickly."

In the China White case, overdose deaths and scores of nonfatal overdoses began in June 1988, most on the North Side and in the Verona-Oakmont area. A task force of local, state and federal agencies began investigating the source of what was believed to be an extremely potent form of heroin but for five months weren't able to connect all the dots that would lead them to a locally produced batch of the deadly designer drug.

On Nov. 2, the team of Mr. Fox, Mr. Rapneth and Ms. Salerno was given the case.

Dec. 3, 1988: 'China White plan conceived by drug addict'
(Click image for larger version)

That day, the team, along with a confidential informant, went to a North Side bar known for illegal drug sales. With Mr. Fox and Mr. Rapneth providing surveillance from their parked car, Ms. Salerno and the informant went inside.

There, the undercover detective began talking about wanting to get "the good dope, the stuff everybody is going out on." She asked the bartender if he could help her and he left, returning with a bag of powder that she purchased for $20.

But once in the car, a field test showed it was negative for heroin, confounding the detectives. Ms. Salerno went back into the bar, where she made a scene.

The bartender left again and returned with a woman, the apparent source of the drug. She yelled at Ms. Salerno: "What do you mean my dope's no good? This is the good stuff, the stuff everybody's been going out on!" Thinking quickly, Ms. Salerno said she must have used too much water to mix her shot and bought another bag.

But again, a test was negative for heroin. Mr. Fox, who had attended a seminar on designer drugs in Los Angeles a few years earlier, realized that maybe they shouldn't be looking for heroin after all. The team asked the county crime lab to do more than the standard drug tests and it was determined what they had purchased was 3-methylfentanyl, an even more powerful form of fentanyl. Further tests confirmed it was the same synthetic drug that had killed the 18 addicts.

The investigation, which included the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and others, led to the arrest the next month of Donald P. Sunkin, 39, of Springdale, a drug addict, and Thomas Schaefers, 47, of Aspinwall, a chemist for Calgon Corp. in Robinson. It was Pittsburgh's real-life version of "Breaking Bad" -- a milquetoast chemist-turned-drug-manufacturer in partnership with a drug addict.

Sunkin, like others arrested in the federal case, entered into a plea bargain. He received an 11-year sentence in exchange for his testimony at trial against Schaefers, who was found guilty and received a 40-year sentence and remains in prison.

With the current epidemic, Mr. Fox said, all he can think about is, "Here we go again. It's all so needless."

Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.

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